Sequestration may mean hard times for Meals on Wheels

Fort Worth Star-TelegramApril 2, 2013 

Freddie Neese does not want to live in a nursing home.

The 66-year-old who has congestive heart failure and an enlarged heart said he's able to stay in his own home - for now - with help from programs such as Meals on Wheels.

He greets volunteers who bring him prepared, healthy meals that include vegetables and fruits with a smile - and great appreciation.

"I don't want to be in a nursing home. I want to be in my own home and I want to live here as long as I can," said Neese, whose wife passed away in 2001. "Getting these meals means a lot to me.

"I don't know what I would do without it."

But this program both locally and nationwide will face tough financial times if, as expected, it becomes a victim of sequestration, the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts triggered because leaders couldn't agree on a better way to cut federal spending.

The Meals on Wheels program in Tarrant County has already been hard hit by shrinking government grants, losing $400,000 from agencies ranging from the Texas Department of Agriculture to the Area Agency on Aging since 2011.

Now the program that delivered its 16 millionth meal in Tarrant County on Tuesday could lose another $100,000 through the across-the-board government spending cuts, unless members of Congress are able to restore funding.

Local program officials are trying to find cuts they can make within the agency to save money that won't impact the meals that are delivered to more than 4,000 elderly or homebound people in Tarrant County nearly every day.

"This is so much more than just a meal," said Denise Harris, a spokeswoman for the local group. "It's someone checking in on them every day, making sure they are OK - and giving them food."

'A big help'

More than 4,000 volunteers make up the bulk of the Meals on Wheels workforce, delivering around 19,000 meals throughout the county each week.

Some of those receiving meals can't get out of bed to answer the door, others are on oxygen or in hospital beds.

"They can't get up and cook for themselves," said volunteer Gail Nelson, who recently delivered a route in Fort Worth. "Meals on Wheels has been a big help for them."

John Hearne was among those who recently received meals on a route delivered by Nelson.

The 90-year-old man, who uses an aging metal walker to navigate the small home he has lived in for 60 years, said he wouldn't have many food options if the program had to cut back on home deliveries.

His two daughters take turns checking in on him every day when they get off work. If the program didn't deliver food to him then he might have to wait until late afternoon or evening for his first meal of the day.

"I'm doing the best I can trying not to fall," Hearne said softly. "This [program] is really important to me. I can barely stand up and walk with my walker.

"I appreciate all that Meals on Wheels is doing for me."

Healthy alternative

Lou Snow, 91, also appreciates the help she gets from the program.

She has only been receiving meals for a few weeks, since injuring her right foot and leg and staying in the hospital for nearly a week.

When she returned home, she was temporarily unable to drive. So Meals on Wheels volunteers began bringing her meals she could warm up in the microwave.

Now Snow, who decades ago helped deliver meals for this program, is among the countless people worried that federal budget cuts could threaten the program.

Those who receive the meals would have to "find another source."

"I don't know what that would be for many people," Snow said.

Neese, who lives with his 14-year-old Pomeranian, Skippy, hopes congressional leaders can address the budget before the sequester hurts the Meals on Wheels program.

"I don't think they need to be cutting down on Meals on Wheels," he said. "It's very important and it saves money."

The program saves money, he said, because it helps older people stay in their homes rather than being forced into a potentially government-funded nursing home because they can't feed themselves.

"Without this program, I would get to a nursing home faster," he said.

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